Diane Nukuri was only 15 when she left her village in Burundi to compete in the Sydney Olympics. Her experience there solidified an idea that she had been considering since she began traveling for races. After winning the bronze medal in the 10,000m at the Francophone Games in Canada the following year, she remained in the country and was granted asylum from her war-torn country. Since then she’s gone on to two more Olympics, top 8 finishes in three major marathons, and has set the Burundian National Records for distances from 1,500m to the marathon.

Key to her success, not only in racing but in life, is her willingness to embrace change and to try new things.

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Civil war had been raging in Burundi since Diane was a child. She had lost her father to the conflict, and her mother, a farmer, was raising her and her siblings alone.  “It wasn’t easy,” Diane recalls. “It was tough to just get by and earn money to go to school, school fees. We had to sell our crops and it was just hard, because it’s not like expecting money to come at the end of the month.” 

Diane had also experienced first-hand the danger of living in an unstable country. “I’ve seen a lot. Like going from my village to the city, there were a lot of people that were shooting from the forest. I’ve seen a dead body, a guy who was shot and killed in my bus. And that was scary.”

Traveling abroad to races opened Diane’s eyes to another way of life. “I mean, for me, just being able to travel, from being a village kid to traveling to Australia, where none of my neighbors are even going to the capital city. So I went from not even going to the capital city to traveling by airplane. I had already been to France and Belgium and other countries before the Games. So I was already starting to realize, ‘Wow, this is like a thing.’”  

She made up her mind that when she went to Canada for the Francophone Games, she wasn’t coming back. Her mother didn’t want her 16-year-old daughter to leave home, but her older brother supported her decision. “When my dad passed away, I was nine years old and he took the role more of like a brother slash dad. So talking to him about the decision and him telling me, ‘You can do it,’ I felt more comfortable.” Her mother came around, at least to a degree. “I just wanted her to sign the paperwork and she signed it. So I figure at least a certain percentage, maybe at least 30% of her, thought this will be okay.”

Diane was well aware of the enormity of what she was doing. “When I was packing my bags and knowing that I wasn’t gonna come home in two weeks, and I was just gonna go out there and go to Canada and trust that everything is gonna be okay, and say bye to my family and especially my mom, I was like, ‘Well, this is it.’  So it was really no turning back and at that point, I think my life already had changed, But I also knew that it was gonna change, whether it was gonna be good or bad. But I knew that making that decision at 16, this is gonna be good for me. It’s gonna change my life and it’s gonna change my family.” 

Successfully starting a new life in a new country gave Diane confidence in her ability to overcome whatever challenges may come her way. “I know that even if I lost everything I have now, I can start all over again. There’s no job that I cannot do. There’s not a place I can’t leave. So I always think, no matter what happens, I can lose everything I have and then I can start over again. So I’m never really freaked out by that. And of course I don’t want to lose everything that I have, but I can start over. I can work at McDonald’s. I can clean people’s homes. So even if I get all this money in the future, it doesn’t really matter to me. Like, it’s nice to have that, because then I can help people. I can help my family. I can live a good life. I can travel. But also, it’s okay if I lose it all. Same with the running. Like, I love it. It’s gotten me to so many places. It’s changed my life, but I also am okay without it.”

Diane believes that one of the reasons that she could accept no longer running is because for her, success isn’t about a place on the podium. “Over the years I’ve always worked really hard because I knew it wasn’t just me; it was supporting my family, helping them. I would be really sad if I could never come and see my brother and his kids and wife. Or over Christmas, I went to Canada and spent Christmas with my two sisters and my brother-in-law, but, you know, that requires time, money, flexibility with your job, and I’m able to do that. So to me, that is part of the success and that success came from running. So for me, that’s really important. Sometimes I’ll be like, I’m gonna train really hard and go to this race and maybe get appearance money or prize money, so that I can use that money to either save it or go to my family, ‘Enjoy, we can eat and drink and do the things we always dreamed of when we were young or we never dreamed of.’”

She’s also always pursued other interests, other challenges. She’s earned her real estate license, and encourages others to not be afraid to try new things. “Even if you fail, it’s okay,” she says. “At least you tried. Just do it and then if it doesn’t work, maybe you find out you like something else. I mean, the worst thing is when you’re still breathing and living and you’re just afraid to try something. Because also, who cares if you fail? You don’t have to announce it, you know.” 

If those new interests can include other people, so much the better. Diane got involved with the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, and now has a little sister. “I love it so much and I get to see my little sister grow, and she’s bringing so much joy in my life. If I didn’t try that, I wouldn’t have another person who’s pretty much part of my family. And her family,I know her whole family. Her mom is amazing. And for me, I feel like the more people you have around you, the happier you are. So try different things. It doesn’t have to be your work. You can volunteer.  You can go hiking instead of running and maybe find other friends who love to hike. It’s not always about running, you know.”


Diane’s Instagram

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